Wednesday, December 31, 2008

It does not take two months; more like two hours, for a camel to cure depression

Okay, maybe "cure" is a strong word. But ease? Definitely. I giggled this week when a camel farmer from Oman told one of The National's reporters that a French psychologist had found that spending 60 days with a camel can cure depression. Not being able to locate the study in question, we are just left with so many more questions than answers. Why a psychologist from France, where there are no camels? How did he come to study this - by accident? And was it that after 60 days he, or his subjects, ended up just so happy to be back among people he/they could talk to that any signs of melancholy magically lifted? It is one of my New Year's Resolutions to track down this study; any hints or leads would be greatly appreciated.

So the Al Dhafra Camel Festival wraps up today; a friend and I headed down there on the weekend to see what was what. We concluded that for us, driving two hours to the camel festival was not really worth it, but we were conflicted. Because you can't really know that the camel festival is not going to be worth it without first seeing the camel festival for yourself. And since we laughed ourselves silly at all the camels (see headline) and ate some yummy, tasty local treats we bought at the souq - some sort of salty and spicy rice/pasta mixture and the most incredible zaatars that we pretended had not been thrown on the floor, even though we could clearly see that they had been as we waited for them - maybe it really was worth it in the end. We've also concluded that when we feel this way about things we do in the UAE, we will simply say "it's like the camel festival" and then will know exactly what the other is talking about.

We missed the turnoff, initially, and with the Western Region's distinct lack of overpasses, spent a half-hour looking for a place to turn around, then another half-hour coming back (or so it felt) we were too late for the Mazayina, or beauty contests everyone has been talking about. But we did get to check out Million Street, seen below, where people basically just walk or, hysterically, drive their camels, like a dog on a leash, but not really, in a sort of car-heavy parade aimed at attracting the highest bidder.

Organisers say 24,000 camels have participated at the event, at an estimated value of US$2 billion, whatever that means. The camels were all of the one-humped (dromedary) variety common to this region; I am not sure which ones I like better: the dark ones or those with a lighter hue. Thank goodness I don't have to choose.

Among the highlights: we spotted two rogue camels running down Million Street, attached to no one. A giant SUV careened away from us, the driver yelling hello. We realised he could not have been older than 10 or 11. A momma camel "talking" to her three babies; and looking out over the desert and realising that, yes, we were at a camel festival. Also, on the way back, my friend told me a story about when she and her mom were visiting Rajasthan, India, and they saw two camels kissing - actually kissing - their owners struggling in vain to pull them apart.

Hokey end-of-year blog post: starting now

This time last year, I was about to celebrate in the back woods of Quebec, in a couple of small chalets with a bunch of my closest friends. We drank champagne, and had a very good time. I was also, and I mean this in a more general sense, trying to stay content while being increasingly unable to silence the voice in my head that kept asking "is this all there is?" Funny, that, as I had just days before shipped off an email asking about a job over here, and was soon to hear back from my now-boss.

Anyhoo, flash forward a year, and here I am. Missing my family and friends, yes, always, but unable to imagine if I stayed put. I guess that's the thing about going, isn't it? You never know until you get there. It's been far from perfect: I felt I might die, many nights, from homesickness. I've been aggravated and defeated and annoyed and upset more times than I can count. And during my first weeks and months here I couldn't imagine a time when I would not use any excuse as a chance to leave. Getting over that, alone, not to sound smug, I think, has been one of the most important experiences of my life thus far. To quote Oprah, just to annoy my British friends, I was a-scared. And now I am not.

I thought to celebrate, I might write a list of what I like about living here, aside from the wickedly funny and accepting people, and the expanded world view, and the reminder that there is so, so much I will do not know, and a lot of time (hopefully!) left to try and get at it.

Here it is:

1) Ethiopia. Greek Islands. Czech Republic. In eight months.

2) Perspective.

3) Adapting to the ready supply of whole wheat pita bread, and the dodgy supply of other kinds. Grilled cheese in a pita, peanut-butter-and-banana in a pita, eggs in a pita, beans in a pita, vegetables... etc.

4) Realising that the sarcastic, elitist, liberal-leaning, screwy sense of humour I've relied on as part of my charm does not translate with those who speak English as a second language. And having to work harder.

5) Pomegranate seeds, by the bowlful. Ever try to get them out yourself? Let alone extracting enough to fill generously portioned plastic tubs? Exactly.

6) Taking my clothes to the laundry, and getting them back with everything - and I do mean everything - ironed.

7) The call to prayer, five times a day. Okay, I am exaggerating slightly. I mean, they've boosted the volume significantly since Ramadan, and you could already hear it everywhere. The part I love, though, is seeing all the men streaming to mosques, sometimes with their little boys, to pray. It's devotion, pure and simple.

8) Living in a hotel. Stockholm Sydrome has overtaken me, and I never want to leave.

9) Hanging around British people, who are hilarious, and also do not care about self help, North American movies, television, celebrities or pop culture. Or Oprah.

10) Getting a whole new life, without losing my old one.

Mark Twain:
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.

From the August issue of Esquire magazine's The Life List: 175 Things A Man Should Do Before He Dies:

No. 27: Live outside the homeland.

If you never live in another country - that is, rent a flat, get a car, buy groceries, greet the same people every day, struggle with the intricacies of the native language for a period of more than a few weeks - then you don’t really have a right to comment on much except the price of gas. It used to be men joined the Navy to see the world; people went to college to study abroad. Now we huddle and cringe at the price of the euro. Grow a set and get out of the country for a while.

Happy New Year

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

My wallet came back to me, just as everyone said it would

I lost my wallet on Christmas night, somewhere between work and home - there were four stops that evening, all offering some form of Christmas cheer - and absolutely panicked the next day when it was not in my purse. I have not lost my wallet since university, when I used to throw my purse under a table for the evening, while I danced and mingled the night away. I consider myself a lot more responsible since then, and I have to say, might have been a tad judgemental of others who let their wallets get away.

Losing one's wallet is a bit of an epidemic here, actually. I have a friend who lost his twice, and for a brief time, carried a man purse in an attempt to keep his belongings safe. That passed. Anyway, the uniting factor is that everyone I have talked to who lost their wallet has found it. Someone in Dubai, a little worse for the wear, who could not remember where he got into a cab or even, roughly, what time, got his back. Another colleague, also in Dubai, had his returned. A woman who works here lost her passport, and happened to be at the embassy at the exact moment the cab driver turned it in. It was a good thing, too, because she was due to go home for Christmas and the embassy destroys passports after one hour.

She practised The Secret, which I did for my camera (Ref: George Michael concert, Czech Republic trip, bitterness) and it obviously did not work. Oh, and the one-time man-purse carrier, he also found his wallet. One of them I know of.

I cancelled my credit cards and bank cards - no mean feat here in the UAE, the process of replacing them involves painful phone calls to HSBC head office, multiple DHL shipments, not to mention a half-dozen phone calls and as many text messages - and hoped. (Also considered wearing my passport on a little carrier around my neck; if I were to lose that it might be game over for me.) There were things in that wallet that I needed, including my Canadian driver's license, so I can get one here. And lo and behold, a sticky note on my desk from a colleague on Sunday, saying my "pocket" was at security. He found it outside, minus $200 bucks or so, where I think someone had tossed it.

My new credit cards arrived today. And ain't the world great?

Not just a late-night fast food binge, apparently

McDonald's may very well be 100% halal, or permitted under Islamic law (those things that are forbidden are haram) but I don't think anyone would argue that it is healthy, which is why these adverts make me giggle. They just make the ingredients look so wholesome. There is another set running on television, with a gentle man's voiceover saying "come, inspect my kitchen" as a McDonald's employee stands beside a spotless deep-fryer and sweeps his hand to the side in a welcome manner.

I wonder what they would say if I just stopped to check it out?

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas: 24 hours in Abu Dhabi

So I have survived my first Christmas away from home. (Actually, that might be premature - I am heading to a party now, and like all of our get-togethers, I predict debauchery)

Last night I set out with a friend from work after we wrapped our shift on the revise desk. We headed to the Sheraton Tavern pub, where there were loads of British people already acting badly, a painfully loud and average band, lots of Santa hats and, as there always is, a cougar-ish woman wearing one of those trampy Santa dresses. Quite a few pints and lots of interesting conversation I can't really recall later, we meandered over to the Howard Johnson's last resort, The Cellar, which was like a drunken scene out of Ally McBeal (in that it was full of my colleagues, and they were all singing along with the band, and dancing dramatically). There were more Santa hats. It got a bit blurry after that. My friend tells me slept in his glasses and hiking boots, which is odd, because he was wearing shoes last I saw him. I spent a few minutes listening to George Michael on my iPod before retiring, and am still not sure which one of us had the more embarrassing end to their night.

I woke early this morning, making my way down to the Gulf Diagnostic Centre and the annual appointment I have already WAY overshared about. The doctor said "I did not expect anyone to turn up today". I stopped at Al Wahda Mall for breakfast, and since I couldn't decide what to get, I ordered french toast, fruit salad AND a side of bacon. Turkey, of course. It was Christmas morning, after all. I wanted to get the power breakfast, but the waitress at Dome pointed out I never eat the muffin that comes with it, so it would be a waste. Then I stopped in at Nail Art for my favourite combination, a pedicure/neck, head and shoulder massage. Headed back home for a nap, then came into work, where a delish turkey dinner - albeit with different trimmings - was laid out on the conference table. At one point a woman I work with drank a cup of gravy, after someone bet her she wouldn't for 100 dirham. (About 33 bucks) As you can imagine, she said it was totally gross.

I am not exaggerating about this: every single person I encountered - people on the street, those in the elevator at my hotel, cab drivers, hospital staff, the guys in the Eiffel corner store that has nothing to do with Paris, Muslim and Christians alike - wished me a happy or merry Christmas. It was one of the most respectful things I have ever experienced, and made me resolve to do better with my Eid Mubaraks next time around. I have been getting loads of messages from back home, with jokes about how I am probably not allowed to celebrate Christmas or even say it here. I probably would have made those kinds of jokes myself, before moving across the world and finding out for myself – among many, many other things – that it's not like that at all.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas in Abu Dhabi: Can you see the difference?

A couple of weeks ago I caught a screening of the Vince Vaughn/Reese Witherspoon comedy Four Christmases - I loved, hilarious - but curiously the name had been de-Christmasized for this region. I say curiously because, well, even though this is a Muslim country, the signs of Christmas are everywhere. People clearly love this stuff.

Also curiously, because you can change the title, remove the red bow from the movie poster and change the presents she's standing on to suitcases, but the plot remains the same, as does the major Jesus-and-Mary Christmas pageant scene. Wouldn't you rather tell people what the movie is about than have them find out in the theatre? Just asking.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas in Abu Dhabi: Santa?

Who the heck is that scaling the roof of Finz at the Beach Rotana?

No, not that man in a Speedo.


Christmas in Abu Dhabi: Gingerbread houses galore

The Beach Rotana, like many of the hotels in the city, has erected real, life-size gingerbread houses in honour of the season. My friend got a little tipsy during a lunch at Prego's the other day and ate a bit of one (although, as you can see, she was clearly breaking the rules). She was reprimanded by the nice elf manning the shop. Today I saw one of the hotel chefs fiddling with the door, possibly replacing whatever piece she had eaten.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The sky seems to be falling...

"It's beginning to collapse. The dream of Dubai is turning sour as toxic debt begins to claim its banks and its construction industry."

Check out the rest of my colleague's "House of Cards" take at Sand Castles in the Sky.


Saturday, December 20, 2008

And then it sunk in: I really won't be going home for Christmas

(December 2007, before an NFL game in Detroit. That's me, my bro and his wife - the tiny one - on the left. Yes, we were the only santas in the stadium that day)

Each year (except for one, I will get to that later) I have spent the holiday at that same green-and-white bungalow across from my old public school in London, Ontario, Canada. I can picture it: snowbanks piled up on either side of my dad's grey minivan in the driveway, multi-coloured lights wound with garland around the post on the front porch and a red glow from the same three faux candles that are always hanging in each window. It was only in recent years that my father stopped putting up the wreath I had fashioned from garbage bags, decorated with plastic fruit and sprayed with canned fake snow back in eighth grade. That was probably for the best, although I still hope he didn't throw it away.

I knew I wouldn't be going home this year, never planned on it, and have actually given the whole thing very little thought. But the other night, as a couple of married colleagues left the office to gather up their children and fly home to the (conveniently close) UK, and the male half uttered a lovely "Merry Christmas guys", I got a giant lump in my throat and my eyes misted up and I felt quite panicked and it hit me that I was staying put.

Is this normal, I asked an experienced expat who has missed many a family event.

"Yes," he said. "That is why we drink heavily."

The hardest Christmas ever was 1997, just weeks after my mom died. We went to Florida that year, just to get away from the whole thing, my dad and brother and I, and on the 25th we cooked a ham to try and be different. It was awful. And to be frank, I haven't really felt the same about the holiday ever since. Anyone who has ever lost someone vital will know exactly what I am talking about. But it was a big consolation in the following years that no matter how much I longed for my mom I would get to spend time with my two other favourite people on earth.

I don't regret coming here to Abu Dhabi. It's actually been quite transforming, when I stopped freaking out about it. And Christmas Day will offer a host of treats, apart from a routine appointment with the gynecologist in the morning – why not the 25th, I thought, when the date was offered as the earliest available - and my scheduled shift on the revise desk. I have made some pretty great friends here, and I plan on seeing them after work at two different events. There is no use pretending: I am sure we will drink, and possibly heavily.

But there are times (and the other night was one of them) when I think I must have been a crazy fool to move so far away from the people who matter most.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

I saw the Crown Prince last night

Of course I see him everywhere, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed: his portrait hanging on the side of buildings, screened on car windshields, his photo on the front page of the paper I work for. But this was the real thing. It happened in Vascoe's at the Hiltonia Beach Club, as I watched my friend talking, when suddenly a palpable hush fell over the restaurant. (She had not yet noticed and kept talking; I looked over to see what was happening) At the next table, a man in a white dish dash was standing by, clutching the hands of a woman. Behind him, dozens of military personnel and other big-wigs (or so they looked) lined up between the tables. A photographer from WAM hovered nearby. Everyone was looking.

"I think that is the Crown Prince," I told my friend (who was the only person still talking, other than the hushed tones of the Crown Prince as he murmured to the woman nearby).

She stopped talking, we all stared, and I noticed the male diners in the place had stood up in his honour.

I wonder if I am going to start seeing him all the time now. Or will never see him again. I imagine this is quite rare. What do you think?

Monday, December 15, 2008

This is very, very scary, for several reasons

A page three article in The National today took my breath away: banks, fearing redundancies among their customers as the financial crisis hits the UAE, have been arbitrarily, and without proper notice, dramatically cutting credit limits and maximum ATM withdrawals. Can they even do that? They are, doing that. Can you imagine if this were to happen back home?

Even my bank, HSBC, has done so. I haven't received the Dec 11 letter yet informing me of the change. But I am just about to head out to buy a new laptop, so we will see what happens.

Things have changed so dramatically since I arrived eight months ago. We all opened accounts and joked about the level of credit they were throwing at us. Cards just seemed to keep arriving in the mail. A car loan was like hailing a cab. And I was told I could get a mortgage for a $500,000 Cdn property. The agent kept saying "two bedroom" when all I wanted was one.

Now this really is hard to imagine actually happening

Not like everything else: the most expensive bottle of water, the largest building, acrylic wall, mall, magazine cover and whatever else can be blown up to Dubai proportions. But the Palazzo Versace Hotel in Dubai is planning to have an air-conditioned beach when it opens in 2010. Something about heat-absorbing pipes under the sand and giant wind-blowers. That's right: when it is 50 degrees (and that is how hot it gets) its guests can be burnt to a crisp under the searing August sun without even realising it. Lovely. Also probably great for the environment.

They are also planning to cool their pool, which is a novel idea (aside from the aforementioned environmental implications). Swimming in the UAE in the summer, anywhere, is like taking a hot bath in a steam room.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Emiratis are lovely people, just hard to meet

It's the tiny poll that just keeps on giving: in what has to be installment number 14 of HSBC International's Expat Explorer Survey, just 54% of people asked in the UAE said they had made friends with locals.

I think my desk debated last time this survey made news, and we figured that of the 2,155 expats in 48 countries on four continents that were contacted between February and April, the UAE's contingent had to be shockingly small. And considering the number of people pouring into this country every day, they could have just arrived. And when locals make up just 20% of the population, well, it's just that much more difficult. Then there is this whole rising issue of Emiratis and the Government wanting to protect their culture from the continuing expat invasion. Language barrier. Religious differences. A tendency to hang in different places. Oh, and the decided pecking order here. You get the idea.

I have however, finally made the beginnings of a friendship with an Emirati - a reporter for Abu Dhabi TV who was on my recent press trip to the Czech Republic (the one I still can't bring myself to discuss due to the utter lack of photographic accompaniment it would involve, ref: STOLEN CAMERA) and he was lovely. Very funny, generous, interested and patient in explaining his country to the rest of us. (We, and by we I mostly mean me, had a lot of questions). I have also made quite a few acquaintences, mostly while working on stories, and they were the same. And I think I could have quite a lot more friends (see previous post), if I were a little more adventurous. Wink, wink.

My point is, I do not care where you are living (even my home and native land of Canada, which topped the list as the most welcoming) it's never easy to meet a new friend. That's why I count myself so lucky, especially here, no matter where they come from, when I do.

Cross cultural Facebook come-on of the day

Subject line: hey

Message: hey...

Sunday, December 7, 2008

It's like Pamela Anderson saw a different Abu Dhabi

I am housesitting a villa - and a cat - this week, and with it comes Showtime Arabia, and with that comes E!, which = me wasting a lot of time on crap stuff like Living Lohan and Pam: Girl on the Loose and lots of E! True Hollywood Story. (Funny, even after an hour I don't feel like I really know Vanessa Williams) There is even a show I've watched a couple of times about a Los Angeles tanning shop mini-empire called Sunset Tan. Suprisingly, the tanning business is very high drama.

Back to Pamela Anderson, who can talk like no other person I've known. I just watched for 15 minutes while waiting for a ride, but that short segment had her meeting with a guy named Sheerez, a representative of Abu Dhabi. Anderson was here for a charity 'do at the Emirates Palace last summer, and called the capital "glamorous and sexy and chic", leading me to wonder if she actually ever left the hotel. "You were on the front of all the papers", he told her, which also made me laugh. (There aren't that many papers, you see)

Anyway, it looks from that short, faked interview that Anderson could be joining the ranks of other celebrities and have her name attached to a building here or something. What? It is one thing to imagine people buying a place in a Michael Schumacher building; quite another one endorsed by someone who is famous for starring in Baywatch and an x-rated honeymoon video with Tommy Lee.

Anyway, Sheeraz said "they need you in April", so I guess that's when we can expect her.

Happy Eid al Adha

It's a strange thing, living in a place where people are in the midst of celebrations that have nothing to do with me. It also, for some reason, has conjured up some buried crankiness with those old farts back home who argue they should be able to wish anyone and everyone "Merry Christmas" this time of year, regardless of their religion. Lowell Green, I am talking to you, though even if you could hear me, I doubt you would stop bloviating long enough to listen. But then again, I'd happily take a "Happy Eid al Adha" today, so perhaps I should just let that go.

Today is the day in the UAE where Muslims slaughter a sheep or goat to commemorate Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice his son to God. (He didn't, actually, end up having to go through with it.) As pilgrims are climbing up Mount Arafah on the last leg of their haj journeys near Mina, Saudi Arabia, the streets of Abu Dhabi are dotted with frightened-looking livestock. (Or maybe, knowing their fate, that's just the way they look to me.) Most of each of them will be given to the poor - actually the formula is a third for the family, a third for friends and a third to the poor. People are suppose to go to municipal slaughter centres for this, but I have heard bloody tales of next door neighbours dispensing with such formalities. Another interesting point is that the children play with the goat or sheep, which is tied up outside their house, and do so knowing it will be slaughtered. Also, as today is also a day people gift each other with cash, there is a serious operation going down to stock ATMs with crisp bills.

Anyway, The National had a great page three article - by my fellow Canadian Jessica Hume - that I think really nicely sums up a lot of what is going on in the UAE today on a number of levels.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Cross cultural Facebook come-on of the day

"All I can say is - woow , i mean hi

where have u been all my life??

you must be from another planet , this kind of sweetness is to much for us human to handle , have some mercy on us ;)"

Friday, December 5, 2008

A few feelings, from the sky above Dubai

I was lucky to go on a press trip to the Czech Republic last week (I had photographs, it was lovely, but you won't see any as my camera is gone, gone, gone... the photos below were taken - and downloaded! - before I left) and although we left from Abu Dhabi, we flew back into Dubai.

We flew Turkish Airlines this time, which was lovely, but Emirates is nice too, and the airport is world class and miles ahead of Abu Dhabi (where the tight quarters and constant flow of loud announcements never fails to make me cranky) but flying into Dubai I am nervous in spite of myself. Nervous about being strip searched. For absolutely no reason, as I have done nothing wrong. But this is the airport where my fellow Canadian, Nicole Stroop-Gillis, was detained this fall after falling out with a security guard after couple of drinks while on a layover on her way from Kandahar to Mozambique. Where people are arrested for having a speck of a dubious substance on their shoe, or for possessing the natural sleep aid melatonin, which one can buy in Boots here in Abu Dhabi. And where celebrities like Lily Allen and Rhys Ifans were reportedly strip-searched on route to the Atlantis hotel opening last month.

This last trip, my paranoia extended to passport control, through luggage pickup and out onto the pavement. It did not abate until we were travelling down Sheikh Zayed Road toward Abu Dhabi. At some points, I feared that I might be strip searched simply because I must have looked so nervous, so I tried to calm myself down, but then worried perhaps I might attract attention by appearing too nonchalant. I get nervous almost anywhere I come into contact with authority, even Canada, so it's understandable. Dubai, where admittedly, they do not mess around, just torques it up.

Cat in the office, and outside the office, and my hotel, and just about everywhere else

I was in The National newsroom working very late one night, in a rare moment by myself, and the sight of wild cats sneaking around in my peripheral vision kept giving me chills. There are an estimated 10,000 wild cats in Abu Dhabi. Many of them, like the crew that lives in the courtyard of the newspaper, have been rounded up and spayed by a group called Feline Friends, as evidenced by the giant chunks missing from their ears. There has also been talk of a "culling" program, which is something I do not want to think about.

The cats at work are often quite funny. There is one that stands on the roof and yells at people as they enter and leave the building. Now and then one of them wanders into a full newsroom, and that scenario is usually marked by loud caterwauling and, one time, a trip to the hospital by a reporter with a nipped finger. These cats do not enjoy being cornered.

Several of them often scrap, while others regularly get into garbage that must have ink from our presses, because I see them walking around with big green or red blotches on their fur. They are also very fond of leftover Chinese and Indian food, which the building's cleaners regularly feed them. My friend Charlie, a sports editor here, has adopted the cats. He gathered money for them to be spayed and feeds them every night. If he's late, they let him know about it. He had a conniption one day, and rightly so, when he saw that a work crew had used their blue water bowel as a receptacle for paint thinner.

Happily, the cats all survived it and are wandering outside as I speak. And then there is Jeff, the resident cat at my hotel, one of the gnarliest-looking and neediest cats I have ever come to know. Jeff likes tuna. A lot.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

I had been wondering what Kate Hudson was up to lately

Just like The Hills, but in Dubai

Dubai is about to get a reality show treatment, US-style. The Dubai Project is the working title of one of five new shows recently announced by Bravo, the US television network.

Bravo says the program will welcome viewers to the "fastest-growing city on earth" by chronicling the exploits of a group of expatriates from Britain and the US as they "navigate this unique environment to pursue the 'American Dream' in the center of the Middle East". World of Wonder, the company behind E! network's Pamela Anderson reality show, Pam: Girl on the Loose, will produce.

I am obsessed with seeing this show when it's all done, although there has been no word on whether it will air in the UAE. I can also see all sorts of issues arising from it. For example, "expatriates from Britain and the US" is most likely code for "people who use living abroad as an excuse to act up in all manner of ways while they drink frequently and obsessively." What happens when they embarrass the government, which, considering the nature of reality television in the US, is almost a certainty?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Makkah, or Mecca: It's that time of year again

I spent far too many hours in the Istanbul airport last week, passing through from Abu Dhabi to Prague and back again. On the way back I saw dozens of men dressed in white towels, basically white hotel towels, wrapped around their waists and draped and safety-pinned around their shoulders. Is this some sort of sect I don't know about, I wondered? That airport is quite a mosaic of different cultures and customs, perhaps more than any other I have been in. A teenager asked to borrow my brush in the bathroom. While her little brother horsed around with the taps, pouring water on his head and killing himself laughing, her older sister asked where I was from and what I was doing there. Turns out they were from Kabul, and were heading on vacation to Italy.

Anyway, I took a great picture of the white towel clan all crowding through the gate to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, but of course I can't include it BECAUSE MY CAMERA IS GONE. Not that I am dwelling.

It turns out they were all heading to the Haj, that once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Holy City thousands (CORR: millions) of Muslims make every year. I asked the woman from Turkish Airlines about it, and she explained that people who are chosen to go on the Haj must also pass through their countries of origin on their way. So if you are a Turkish Muslim living in the US, well, Istanbul and a couple of towels is how you gotta roll.

Cross-cultural Facebook come-on of the day

"hi ann
How do you do
I have to say one thing
'You are wow'
I hope i can meet you one day to see how pretty you are is real world ;)"

A few words from a British colleague

I spilled (or as I believe the British would say, "spilt") yoghurt all over the inside of my lunch bag today, and as the only sink in the office that's really accessible is in the washroom (the kitchen was built without one, curiously, and the tea men are very protective of their tiny quarters), I was in there washing off fruit, walnuts etc when a friend walked in and asked:

"Are you having breakfast in the loo?"

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

UAE National Day: 37 years and counting

I had a lovely set of photos to illustrate just what has been going on in Abu Dhabi leading up to today, but as I have previously explained, someone has stolen my camera. With all the photos. So, words will (mostly) have to do. The nation is 37 years old today and boy is it proud. I have a little experience with this, having lived in Canada's capital for so many July 1sts. But to witness such displays of patriotism here has been nothing short of fascinating.

Many of the cars, as you can see from these donated photos from my good friend at Sand Castles in the Sky, have been be-Sheikhed in the most hilarious ways. Other cars - big manly ones, like Land Cruisers – have been decorated with green, red, white and black heart stickers or ribbons streaming from the door handles, or both. Or if they are a little older, they have simply been spray painted, graffiti-like.

Right now, outside, all that can be heard is the sound of celebratory honking and helicopters in the sky. A giant fireworks display has just wrapped up down on the Corniche, the walkway along the water. The entire city is on holiday until Dec 11 (can you imagine?) and people have gone to town with decorations. There are lights around the trunk of every date tree; lit "37"s all up and down the grass separating the lanes. Buildings are covered in lights and flags.

People have donned flag dresses, flag hair ornaments, flag scarves, complete with Sheikh Khalifa's face on each of the ends (that was the security guard at work, Mohammed). I have also seen cardboard crowns, complete with the Sheikhs faces. Tonight I walked by a group of Emiratis, with a giant flag attached to their car, who were unloading a trunk full of super soaker water guns. I have no idea what this has to do with National Day. And I have just received a report that things are still in a frenzy downtown.

More good pics at Abu Dhabi/UAE Daily Photo.

George Michael: I will be the one who loves you, 'til the end of time

Okay, so yes, I did go to the Alicia Keys/George Michael concert last night. No trying to hide it. The big 'do at Zayed Sports City that was supposed to mark Michael's last concert (of course it's not going to be) and usher in UAE National Day (more on that later). We arrived late, my trio and I, and the nice fellow at the ticket gate upgraded us from crappy, cheap with-the-masses ones to "Diamond" VIPs that cost Dh995 (that's almost $340 Cdn y'all). So yes, I did feel special and not at all self-conscious kicking off my shoes and dancing to music more than 20 years old.

Here are a few things I learned:

1) Apparently I know each and every word to Careless Whisper.
2) I am not the only one in Abu Dhabi to possess this knowledge.
3) Contrary to popular belief, people do steal things, such as cameras, in Abu Dhabi; hence the lack of photographs accompanying these words.
4) Big concert organisers in the UAE are still sorting out the drinks-to-expat ratio. Did they learn nothing from the Paul Weller/Desert Rhythm Festival debacle? May I suggest, next time, they err on the side of "quite a lot".
5) I would not have expected a fight to break out between two George Michael fans at a concert in Abu Dhabi, for a variety of reasons. Nor would I expect a female expat to purchase a flat of (very limited) beer and then sell cans of it for three times the price, or that I would be so thirsty for any sort of liquid that I would consider paying such an outrageous price, but as I need to keep reminding myself, anything can happen at any time.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Guest blog from Canada: Things are sort of &%$# up right now, aren't they?

I got this email today from one of my best friends back in Canada. He is hilarious, but like a lot of us, sort of can't wrap his head around things from time to time. He also explained to me that it was past his bedtime, he'd (quite dangerously) stopped thinking about work and was still suffering the effects of a breakdown in his VPN software, whatever that is. Still, he sort of sums things up, doesn't he?

You were the first person that I thought of when I heard about the nightmare in India.
If I thought that there was a safe place in this topsy turvy world, I'd tell you to go there right now.
But, accepting the reality, I guess the UAE is as good a place as any.
I really think that we are witnessing a horrible history, living in a time not so unlike WW1, 2, or the depression.
Melodramatic maybe, but I don't see it getter better anytime soon.
I don't see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I am a believer in equilibrium and something feels globally off.
I feel as though I did not properly or fully appreciate the last decade as much as I should have.
I don't feel reassured by the leaders of our world.
Their words fall short of my ears. They have lost their power.
They have become salespeople to me.
All I hear is them pushing their wares; their repetitive rhetoric turning into a hypnotic rhythm that just becomes pressure on my eardrums.


Thursday, November 27, 2008

Cross cultural Facebook come-on of the day

"hello,,,,,how are u,,,,,,,,
i am mo from dubai and i would like to know u so hope to hear from u soon..........

He belongs to one group: Russian Bride, "a Belarus Bride and Marraige Agency for Men".

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A brief tour of my neighbourhood

This is the hotel that I have called home for the last (almost) eight months.

This is Jeff the stray cat who lives outside the hotel. I am the only one who calls her Jeff. She is a very needy cat. There is a chunk missing from her ear, which means she has been rounded up and spayed.

This is the corner store with the nicest staff ever.

This is the place I take my laundry. They iron everything, even my yoga pants. Once I went in to pick up my laundry and noticed a pair of boxer shorts I like to wear sitting on the counter. "Are those my shorts?" I asked. "Yes yes," said the man behind the counter, "it's okay." It really wasn't okay, but I left it at that.

This is the mosque that wakes me up with the pre-dawn call to prayer most days.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Nap time

This is a picture of some of the UAE's construction workers – "blue suits", my friend back home calls them – snoozing on their noon-hour break outside my hotel. As you can see, they are exhausted.

These guys can sleep anywhere. I was walking to work yesterday and encountered a group - all of them, out - on the sidewalk. As I stepped gingerly around them, not wanting to wake anyone up, I noticed one man was using a brick as a pillow.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Be nice to your maid, the ads say

I wrote a story for The National last week about a new series of television public service ads that basically encouraged people not to abuse their domestic staff. (I would link to it but the paper's website is a little wonky right now) One of the ads shows a woman yelling at her maid in front of her friends; in another, a man yells at his maid and driver because they asked for their wages, which were two months late. Another reporter, Rym Ghazal, wrote a column about it, which has prompted people to pipe up with their own stories of seeing domestic staff treated badly in and around Abu Dhabi.

The day the article ran I stopped into grab a coffee at a Starbucks in Al Wahda mall. An Emirati woman was waiting to pick up whatever she had ordered, and a tiny woman sort of lurked in the background. I motioned to her, as if she was in line. She just shook her head. As I was ordering my drink, she followed on the heels as the Emirati woman headed out into the mall.

The picture above is from a print ad that will run in some newspapers in Saudi Arabia. It's hard for me to imagine anyone abusing anyone, verbally or otherwise. But even the thought that woman would not be offered her own hot drink to enjoy breaks my heart. How do all these people living and working here, far away from their own families - often their own children - survive when they are being treated well, let alone badly?

Hopefully those ads will hit home. But it's been my experience that people who behave badly rarely recognise themselves when it is reflected back to them.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Friday morning, the gym

I do not often see the inside of my gym on a Friday morning, as I am more likely to be sleeping in after being out late. (Such is Abu Dhabi. Plus, Thursday night is like Friday here) But this morning I did, 9.30am, and boy was it a shock.

Of course the regulars from the rest of the week were there: the lady who is wearing the exact same Lululemon top each time I see her; the lazy woman, who basically slumps against whatever machine she is on, moving her legs on it as if in slow motion, at the lowest level, and the woman who wears her long hair down and lots of makeup to work out. Anyone with long hair knows you do not want your hair down when you work out. It's just awful. That is why anyone with long hair knows a woman who wears her hair down at the gym - with full makeup - is highly interested in attracting attention. If you know what I mean. There was also the nice gym attendant and, per usual, a random man who started doing free weights in the same space it was clear to anyone with eyes I had already set up shop in, forcing me to move and get grumpy.

The rest of the people at the gym, however, were the sort of superfits that just make you feel bad about yourself. Ones who look as if they just walked out of a Reebok ad. Who like to bundle together an hour long body-pump class and an "intense" RPM (spinning) class on their day off, and view it as some sort of social activity. The sort who are always "in shape". As I fiddled with my iPod and arm band, a couple bounced in and moved in on the scale. Jabbing at each other and laughing, each trying to get on to it, I thought "what is this all about?" No man I have ever been seeing will be in the same room when I step on a scale; there certainly would not be jostling and giggling about the whole thing, as if it were some sort of event they were looking forward to. You know, "honey, I lost two more pounds. Oh my gaaaa, I just can't keep weight on anymore since we've upped the cardio!" Do couples like these, who seem like all they really have time for is to work out, and weigh themselves, ever just say "do you want to just eat pasta and drink wine tonight?"

Needless to say, they were still there, feeling the burn, an hour later. I, on the other hand, was heading to the pool.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Never reuse anything, Abu Dhabi

A few words from a British colleague

A few weeks ago, the Daily Mail ran a story, accompanied online with grainy footage, about an angry gnome, or more likely, a gnome-like creature, that had been terrorizing kids in Argentina. After watching it, my colleage had this to say:

"Is it a gnome, or just a toddler in a pointy hat?"

More rain please

It rained here yesterday, quit a lot. There was thunder and everything.

At first I thought the roof in the kitchenette had finally fallen in, but then I looked outside and saw a downpour. I think my mouth was open: it was the first precipitation I have witnessed in almost eight months. (Interestingly, I had just the night before read an article about the "rain show" out at Marina Mall. Apparently they simulate thunder and downpours out there, for entertainment purposes)

Anyway, I was so excited to wake up to the sound of rain I immediately lay back down, just to have the pleasure of listening to it. Then it stopped, five minutes after it started. I feel back asleep and when I woke up an hour later, it was sunny again as if nothing had happened.

To give you an idea of just what a big deal this was, our front page picture today was a photo of a mall reflected into a puddle. And here was the Question of the Day: "Yesterday's rainstorm in Abu Dhabi triggered 25 car accidents. What more can be done to educate motorists about the dangers of driving in adverse weather?"

I am not responsible for this carnage

And how do bugs always manage to flip onto their backs when they die?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

I tire of the meaningless world records in Dubai

Since I arrived in April they seem to come every week and grow increasingly ridiculous. Two notables were the world's most expensive magazine cover (it was covered in gold flakes and had its own press conference) and the world's largest acrylic wall, which just happens to be at the new aquarium. Could not let that one go unnoticed, could you Dubai?

The latest, but not really the most ridiculous, is a "rare" bottle of Evian created and designed by Christian Lacroix that was auctioned for US$23,000 this week at a flashy food festival called the Jumeirah Festival of Taste.

The auction was attended by an adjudicator from Guinness World Records (one who must be growing weary of his frequent trips to this Middle East outpost) who confirmed another world record: the most expensive litre of water.

I could not find a picture of it online, but I imagine it to be something like this, only more fancy:

Snap caption: I am not sure what the problem is, officer

Winter is coming, and apparently it is going to be quite cold

The stuff for sale in the shops would have me believe snow is about to fall here any minute, and I have to tell you, I am a little rattled. I brought nothing with me but summer clothes and sandals. People tells me it goes down to 15C at night, and I guess after being steamed alive all summer I am having a little trouble remembering just how that feels. Looking back on last September in Canada, I do not recall having to don a puffy vest or scarf, but perhaps that will all change now that I am in Abu Dhabi.

Somehow, I don't think so though. Another expat wrote in to The National today complaining about the stock in stores after her husband left two pairs of shorts behind on a trip abroad. He has been unable to find another pair.

"Why is it that the multinational clothing chains insist that their outlets here stock the same seasonal items as their stores in America and Europe? Don't they ever compare temperatures?" she asked. "I mean, when was the last time you ever saw anyone in Abu Dhabi or Dubai wearing a duffel coat?"

I do not even know what a duffel coat is. But I have to say I find it comforting to know that should I take an unplanned trip back to my home and native land this winter, Abu Dhabi's malls are offering everything I need to outfit myself, including a plethora of turtlenecks, wool dresses and trousers, tall boots both stiletto and furry, mitts and gloves and, of course, snowboards.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Atlantis, The Palm, deconstructed

A couple of weeks ago I spent some time at Atlantis, the massive new hotel on the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai.

So I was particularly interested this morning, when I opened the first-ever Saturday edition of The National, to see a review of it in the travel section. I was even more pleased to see it was written by Rupert Wright, a business editor at the paper and one of my new favourite writers on the planet. I mean, he makes business kinda funny - not an easy feat these days.

One does not expect to laugh out loud during a hotel review, and certainly not more than once. But then again, most writers do not come up with stuff like this: "Nobu was spectacular, although my wife complained about the interior and I found the chairs unnecessarily hard" and "one day you will be able to catch the monorail from the city; now you just hear the sound of welding as you lie on your sun-lounger".

He also hated, as I do, that the hotel makes guests pay for internet access: "What will they charge for next? The air-conditioning?" and praised his male masseur, describing him as "jolly handy with his hot stones".

Here is the glass fountain in the lobby he dubs "ghastly":

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Facebook come-on of the day

"sorry to disturb you
honestly i dont know you but would like to be
your friend"

From a fellow 10 years younger than I, who belongs to but one FB group: MATURE WOMEN ARE SEXY & GOT IT ALL

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Kraft Dinner, not quite

I was totally jonesing for some good old-fashioned North American guilty pleasure comfort food a couple of days ago. As I wandered around the supermarket, looking for things - chips and dip? can't find sour cream. Hot dogs? Nowhere near the Spinney's pork room - I stumbled on this.

Dubai: magnificent views and near vomit-inducing dune bashing. And camels.

Wm. Srite photo

Finally. After 7.5 months in the UAE I saw a camel. Well, I saw a bunch of them, as the picture indicates. A few in the wild too, and I would have snapped a picture of those if I wasn't doing my very best not to be sick all over the back of a Land Cruiser.

We went on a safari, and sand dune bashing - or, as I like to call it, an excuse for driving recklessly - was the main event. My party was not really prepared for this aspect, have overrefreshed ourselves the night before. Many people loved it. I, however, am still nibbling on saltines and drinking ginger things. I should have known when they stopped all the vehicles and deflated the tires.

Rob Evans photo

Anyway, a weekend outing to Dubai by a group of expats from Abu Dhabi was otherwise a success. There were the camels, and lots of other slightly hokey stuff, on the Orient Tours Safari I would have enjoyed were I not continuously nauseous. Tiny camel rides - as in walking around a circle - sand boarding and sledding. Also, oddly, belly dancing.

But you do those kinds of things when you go away, don't you? And even though you know it's all touristy, at the end of the day, when you are riding home in the dark, sandy and tired, you are glad you did.

Bonus: the picture below may look like one of those photographic renderings the UAE is famous for (I was sorely disappointed in Abu Dhabi at night when I arrived, simply because it did not look like the Vegas-on-the-moon pictures I had seen online) but it is not. Instead, awesomely, it is the view from my friend's apartment, on the 11th floor of a building in the Dubai Marina. Parts of it are really shaping up, aren't they?

Wm Srite photo

How to be a happy expat

Because a cloud wall makes you want to take a selfie.  After 10 years living in the UAE, some of that time happy, some miserable and ...